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Is There an Ecological Ethic; by Holmes Rolston III

Is There an Ecological Ethic; by Holmes Rolston III

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Published by: Center for Respect of Life and Environment on Nov 13, 2010
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Ethics: An International Journal of Social, Political,and Legal Philosophy
18(no. 2,1975):93-109.
Is There
an
Ecological Ethic?
HoLmes
Rolston III
Colondo
State
Unh'enity
The Ecological
Conscience!
is
the arresting title
of
a representative environmental anthology.
The
puzzlement lies neither in the noun nor in the
by
nowfamiliar modifier.
but
in their operation on each other. We are comfonablewith a Christian
or
humanist ethic, but the moral noun does not regularlytake a scientific adjective: a biological conscience. a geological conscience.
In
a celebrated survey.
The
SulxJersi'IJe
Sciente,
I
where ecology reaches into ourultimate commitments, Paul Sears entitles an essay
"The
Steady State: Phys
ical
Law and Moral Choice."
To
see how odd, ethically and scientifically,
is
the conjunction, replace homeostasis with gravity
or
entropy.
The
sense
of
anomaly
will
dissipate, though moral urgency may remain,
if
an environmental ethic proves
to
be
only an ethic-utilitarian,hedonist,
or
whatever-about the environment, brought to it. informed concerning it,
but
not in principle ecologically formed
or
reformed.
This
would
be
like medical ethics, which
is
applied to but not derived from medical
s c i e n c e ~
 
But we are sometimes promised more, a derivation in which thenewest bioscience shapes (not to say, subverts) the ethic, a resurgentnaturalistic ethics. "We must learn that nature includes an intrinsic value
 
system,''' writes Ian McHarg.s A
DlltdaJus
collection
is
introduced with thesame conviction: Environmental science "is the building
of
the structure
of
concepts and natural laws that will enable man
to
understand his place innature. Such understanding must
be
one basis
of
the moral values that guideeach human generation in exercising its stewardship over the eanh. For thispurpose
ecology-the
science
of
interactions among living things and their
environments-is
central."4 We shall presently inquire into the claim that an
I.
Robert Disch,
cd.,
T!Jf&oIogietll
Constim«:
ValuesforSllroivaJ
(Englewood
Cliffs,
N.J.:
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970).
2.
Paul Shepard
and
Daniel McKinley, eds.,
Tbt
SuIJwrriw
Scie".t
(Boston: HoughtonMifftin Co.,
1969).
).
Ian L. McHarg, "Values, Process, and Form,"
in
Disch, p.
21-
4. Roger Revelle
and Hans
H. Landsberg, cds.,
AJnema's
ClHmging
Et/'lJirrm_t
(Boston:Beacon Press,
1970),
p. xxii.
93
 
94
Etbi£s
ecological ultimacy lies in
"The
Balance
of
Nature: A
Ground
for Values."
Just
what
sort
of
traffic
is
there here between science and morality?
The
boundary
betweenscienceandethics
is
precise
jf
weaccepta
pair
of
current
(though not unargued) philosophical categories:
the
distinction
be
tween descriptive and prescriptive law.
The
fonner, in
the
indicative, marks
the
realm
of
science and history.
The
latter, including always an imperative,marks
the
realm
of
ethics.
The
route from one to
the
other,
if
any, is perhaps
the
most intransigent issue in moral philosophy, and he
who
so moves will
be
accused
of
the
namralistic fallacy.
No
set
of
statements
of
fact
by
themselvesentails
any
evaluative statement, except as some additional evaluative premisehas been introduced. With careful analysis this evaluation will reappear,
the
ethics will separate
out
from
the
science.
We
shall press this logic on ecological ethics. Environmental science describes
what
is
the
case.
An
ethic prescribes
what
ought to
be. But an environmental ethic?
Ifour
categories hold,perhaps we have a muddle.
Or
perhaps a paradox
that
yields light
on
thelinkage between facts and values.We find representative spokesman for ecological morality
not
of
a singlemind.
But the
multiple species can, we suggest,
be
classified
in
two
genera,following
two
concepts that are offered as moral sources.
(,4)
Prominent in,
or
underlying, those
whom
we
i:lear
first
is
the connection
of
homeostasis withmorality.
This
issues largely
in what
we term an ethic
that
is secondarilyecological.
(/3)
Beyond this, surpassing though
not
necessarily gainsaying
it,
is
the
discovery
of
a moral ought inherent in recognition
of
the
holisticcharacter
of
the ecosystem, issuing
in an
ethic
that
is
primarily ecological.
But
first, consider an analogue.
When
advised
that we ought to
obey
the
laws
of
health, we analyze the injunction.
The
laws
of
health are nonmoral
and
operate inescapably on us. But, circumscribed
by
them,
we have certainoptions: to employ
them
to
our
health,
or
to neglect them ("break them")
to
our
hurt. Antecedent to the laws
of
health, the moral
ought
reappears insome such form as, "You ought
not
to
harm
yourself." Similarly the laws
of
psychology, economics, history, the social sciences, and indeed all appliedsciences describe
what
is (has been,
or
may be) the case;
but
in confrontationwith
h ~ m a n
 
agency,
they
prescribe what
the
agent
must
do
if
he
is
to attain adesired end.
They
yield a technical ought related
to
an if-clause
at the
agent'soption.
So
far
they
are nonmoral;
they
become moral only as a moral principle binds
the
agent to some end.
This,
in
tum,
is
transmitted through naturallaw
to
a proximate moral ought.
Let
us
map
this as follows:
Tedmi&4J
Ougbt Natuf'lll
Law
A."ttttdmt
If-Opt;""
You
ought not to break the
for
the laws
of
health de-
if
you wish
not
to
harm
laws
of
health scribe
the
conditions
of
yourself.welfare
Prui1lUlU
Moral
Ougbl
NlIlrvai
Law
A"'trttk,,t
Moral
Ought
You
ought not to break thefor the laws
of
health deand you ought not to hannlaws
of
healthscri be
the
conditions
of
yourself.welfare
 
95
Is
Tben
an
Ecological
Ethic?
Allow for the moment that (in the absence
of
overriding considerations)prudence
is
a moral virtue. How
far
can ecological ethics transpose to ananalogous format?
A
Perhaps the paramount law
in
ecological theory
is
that
of
homeostasis.In material, our planetary ecosystem
is
essentially closed, and life proceedsby recycling transformations. In energy, the system
is
open, with balancedsolar input and output, the cycling being
in
energy subsystems
of
aggradation and degradation. Homeostasis, it should be noted,
is
at once anachievement and a tendency. Systems recycle, and there
is
energy balance;yet the systems are not static, but dynamic,
as
tbe forces that yield equilibrium are in
flux,
seeking equilibrium yet veering from it to bring counterforces into play. This perpetual stir, tending to and deviating from equilibrium, drives the evolutionary process.
1.
How
does this translate morally? Let us consider first a guardedtranslation. In
"The
Steady State: Physical Law and Moral Choice," PaulSears writes: "Probably men
will
always differ
as
to what constitutes thegood life.
They
need not differ
as
to what
is
necessary for the long survival
of
man on earth. Assuming that this
is
our wish, the conditions are clearenough.
As
living beings we must come to terms with the environment aboutus, learning to get along with the liberal budget at our disposal, promotingrather than disrupting those great cycles
of
nature--of water movement,energy flow, and material transformation that have made
life
itself possible.
As
a physical goal,
we
must seek to attain what I have called a steady state.
"5
The
tide
of
the article indicates that this
is
a moral "must."
To
assess thisargument, begin with the following:
Teelmital Ought
&oJogiazluw
Antecttlmt IfOptio"
You ough[
[0
recyclefor the life-supporting eco
if
you wish
to
presen'e
system recycles
or
perishes
human life.
When
we
replace the if-option by an antecedent moral ought,
we
convert the technical ought to a proximate moral ought. Thus the "must" in thecitation is initially one
of
physical necessity describing our circumscriptionby ecological law, and subsequently it
is
one of moral necessity when this law
is
conjoined with the life-promoting ought.
Prozi",lZIe
Moral
OugbJ
EcoJogiCIII
Law
Antecttlmt
Moral Ought
You
ought
[0
recycle for the life-supporting ecoand you ought to preservesystem recycles
or
perishes
human
life.
The
antecedent ought Sears takes, fairly enough, to
be
common, to many
if
not
all
our
moral systems. Notice the sense in which we can break ecologicallaw. SpeUing.the conditions
of
stability and instability, homeostatic laws
5.
Shepard and McKinley,
p.
401.

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